The work that Witold Lutosławski completed for Krystian Zimerman in 1988, six years before his death, ranks alongside Ligeti’s utterly different concerto as the most important for piano and orchestra since Bartók. Zimerman gave the first performance at the Salzburg festival the same year, and recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon in 1989, with the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Zimerman has continued to perform the concerto regularly, living with it, refining his interpretation. The piano part was always perfectly tailored to his supreme technique – whether it’s the simple, crystalline phrases of the opening movement, the whirling sleights of hand of the scherzo-like second, the quasi-romantic expressiveness of the slow third, or in the extraordinary finale, which manages to combine the elements of an orchestral chaconne with the chain form that was Lutosławski’s innovation in his later music. And as this new recording makes clearer than ever, it is a work very much conceived in the great concerto tradition, constantly questioning and reassessing the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra. That relationship is constantly probed by Zimerman and Simon Rattle too; the Berlin Philharmonic’s realisation of the flickering, glinting orchestral writing is just as meticulously detailed as the jewel-like precision of the piano playing. Together they make this new recording a glorious affirmation of the place of Lutosławski’s work in the concerto canon – part of a lineage that stretches back through Bartók and Prokofiev to Brahms, Schumann and Chopin.
The pairing is important too – with Rattle’s live performance of a key work from an earlier phase in Lutosławski’s career, the Second Symphony, completed in 1967. It was the first large-scale orchestral work to use his compositional technique of “limited aleatoricism”, the compromise Lutosławski made between the Cageian ideas of chance and performer choice, and the control that, as a composer, he needed to retain over his musical material. Rattle’s performance, massive and thrillingly wild, conveys the sense of a work that’s both experimental and at the same time profoundly assured. To me, at least, it’s a much more exciting achievement than the over-manicured Third and Fourth Symphonies that followed it.
Wednesday 5 August 2015 15.30 BST